Science, not misconceptions, can help employees living with obesity

Evidence-based, scientific approach to treating obesity can lower benefits costs, increase productivity

Science, not misconceptions, can help employees living with obesity
Obesity in Canada is estimated to be responsible for more than $7 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity each year.

More than one in four Canadian adults live with obesity, according to Statistics Canada’s 2018 Canadian Community Health Survey. Add in those who are overweight and the proportion is almost two out of three.

Given the health effects of living with obesity, it’s an issue to which employers concerned with employee health and wellness should pay attention.

“From an employer perspective, obesity and its related comorbidities — including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, sleep apnea, and even cancer — not only drive up the cost of health benefit plans, but they can also have a direct impact on employee performance at work,” says Martine Carbonneau, director of field patient access at healthcare company Novo Nordisk Canada.

Obesity in Canada is estimated to be responsible for more than $7 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity each year — and there is increasing evidence linking obesity with more severe cases of COVID-19, she says.

“If employers were to think about obesity and its impact strictly from an economic standpoint, it is increasingly becoming difficult for them to ignore.”

There are measures employers can take to help employees living with obesity, but their approach should avoid misconceptions and stereotypes that contribute to bias and hinder people from finding proper solutions. Many people still believe that obesity is solely a lifestyle choice that is easy to solve by “eating less and moving more,” says Carbonneau, despite scientific and medical advances that have provided a better understanding of obesity and how to manage it.

Employers have a role to play in breaking down these misconceptions by creating awareness around obesity, eliminating bias and stigma in the workplace, and providing access to evidence-based treatments through their health benefits plans,” she says.

There is a need to rethink the approach to obesity treatment within the workplace, as many employers simply offer wellness-focused initiatives such as short-term weight loss or physical activity challenges. However, these can do more harm than good because they further stigmatize the “eat less, move more” approach and may discourage employees from participating or receiving proper care.

“Employers should focus their efforts on providing access to evidence-based treatment options through the benefit plan,” says Carbonneau, suggesting services such as medical nutrition therapy with a registered dietician, cognitive behavioural therapy, and anti-obesity medications that address the root causes of obesity  are more likely to sustain long-term weight management.

With the proper approach, employers can not only better control the cost of their benefits plans, but also contribute to a more engaged and productive workforce, she says.

“We know obesity is much more complicated, so employers should provide comprehensive information and raise awareness around the scientific nature of obesity, provide access to proven treatment options for this chronic condition, and encourage those living with obesity to seek proper care.”

For more information, download this free whitepaper from Novo Nordisk Canada — creator of the Obesity Management Toolkit for the Workplace — outlining areas of education and providing recommendations for employers on workplace obesity management.

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